A study published Thursday in a prestigious scientific journal links significant increases in COVID-19 transmission rates to meatpacking plants, especially those facilities the authorities has allowed to speed up processing lines. Researchers found evidence that linked meatpacking plants to some “high possibility of community spread” in the surrounding areas. The findings have implications for that Ohio Valley, where Tyson Foods plants in western Kentucky and southern Indiana received waivers this spring to increase work line speed even while dozens of workers were falling ill towards the virus.

The study, published within the Proceedings from the Nas of the us of America, discovered that counties with poultry processing plants that received line speed waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have double the rate of COVID-19 cases when compared with counties with poultry plants that did not receive these waivers. Researchers found an even stronger connection with waivers given to processing plants this season.

The “live hang” portion of a chicken processing plant.

“Of the 120 poultry plants in our sample, 48 plants currently have waivers, 16 of which were issued in 2021,” the study authors wrote. “Among plants issued a waiver in 2021, the relationship is even greater in magnitude. This finding suggests a possible pathway between a livestock plant's operating procedures and COVID-19 transmission.”

Tyson Foods plants in Henderson County, Kentucky, and Corydon, Indiana, received waivers in April in the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Plan to increase processing line speeds from 140 birds each minute up to 175 birds each minute. That call came even as dozens of workers in the Henderson County plant were testing positive for COVID-19.

Adam Pulver is definitely an attorney using the Public Citizen Litigation Group, a progressive advocacy organization representing unionized workers at those plants and others across the country inside a lawsuit from the USDA. The suit alleges the USDA didn't consider worker safety concerns when granting these waivers inside a workplace that already sees high rates of workplace injury, which the USDA didn't allow for public discuss the waivers. Pulver said increased line speeds force workers closer together to maneuver poultry through the processing line, reducing social distancing between workers.

“Adopting these increased line speeds shows complete disregard for worker safety, even before COVID,” Pulver said. “Now, it is simply maniacal, completely disregarding the truth that putting workers closer together and enhancing the pace puts them basically at risk of death and also returning COVID towards the communities that surround them, which this study particularly centered on.”

Researchers found evidence these plants were drivers of COVID-19 cases within the communities they were situated in, with increased coronavirus case rates up to 90 miles away from a plant. The study estimates between 236,000 and 310,000 COVID-19 cases, and between 4,300 to 5,200 deaths are associated with meatpacking plants as of July 21.

“In short, for each worker infected at a livestock plant, between seven and eight local nonworkers were ultimately infected by the end of the sample period, underscoring the high possibility of community spread,” the research states.

Researchers also discovered that following within a week of a plant closure to halt the spread of COVID-19, growth rates of COVID-19 spread significantly decreased. Counties which had plant shutdowns had higher overall COVID-19 caseloads, which researchers said was likely “because closures occurred past too far to suppress community spread beyond these plants.”

A spokesperson for Tyson Foods didn't respond to questions about the study, or maybe processing line speeds increased following a granted waivers at plants in Henderson County, Kentucky, and Corydon, Indiana. The group National Chicken Council isn't involved with the lawsuit against the USDA regarding processing line speed waivers, however the group previously help with an identical waiver request to get rid of the speed limit on the evisceration line at plants. That idea was ultimately rejected through the USDA.

NCC Spokesperson Tom Super previously told the Ohio Valley ReSource in August there was no evidence that increased line speeds in evisceration lines are more susceptible to COVID-19 transmission. Inside a statement on Thursday Super said his group is reviewing the research, but is confident there's still no outcomes of COVID-19 transmission and line speed waivers because evisceration lines are automated.

Pulver, the lawyer representing meatpacking workers, said there's “nothing new” about the way plants are operating now compared to the past decade.

“The industry might have played a crucial role in lessening the spread of the pandemic and they made the choice not to do so. Installed more pressure than normal on state and federal government officials to ensure that they're from doing things that might have actually saved hundreds and maybe thousands of people from contracting COVID,” he explained.

A report from ProPublica captured revealed through emails how meatpacking companies fought with local health agencies over measures to reduce COVID-19 spread, including a health department leader in western Kentucky fretting about reports of plant management forcing symptomatic employees to carry on working.